27 May 2007

codeswitching envy

i've lifted this quote wholesale from the facebook wall of my Italian cousin who is coming to the US in the fall to begin his freshman year of college:

hahaha yeah man it was so cool. minchia the autista was fumating a cigaro and he had ray-ban aviators! cazzo era un grande. allora, how is it without me now?
for some reason or another, i find this so incredibly amusing. i think it might be derived from jealousy. i can only codeswitch out of Italian (because my vocabulary is so damn small), not back and forth like this person. my personal favorite is the morpheme-level switch in fumating. i gotta find a context to use that one.

26 May 2007

this is a *postest. wait, no...

today i again had occasion to lament the fact that it's impossible to add superlative endings to nouns in English like you can in (at least some) Romance languages. so i'm sitting around on Saturday morning, watching Serie B calcio (like you do), when the Italian announcer on Rai International says:

c'era una occasionissima per la Juve!
the only way to render this in English is to say something like "that was a great chance for Juve!" something like "that was a chancest..." or even "that was the chancest..." (since English superlatives like to take definite articles) are both horrible. in lay terms, chancest is just not a word. more precisely, the rules of English morphology and in particular the features of the superlative suffix -est prohibit it from being attached to nouns.

although -est most frequently is suffixed to adjectives, it's common knowledge that not all positive adjectives mesh nicely with it. thus there are sets such as:

sweet / sweeter / sweetest
sour / *sourer / *sourest
elite / *eliter / *elitest

these two examples can rule out semantics (sweet and sour are both taste sensations) and phonetics (sweet and elite both terminate in a stressed syllable [it]) as reasons that -er and -est are prohibited here. they are some of the most fickle morphemes English has. the semantic concepts of sourer, sourest, eliter, and elitest are still representable in English, but rely on periphrasis.

sour / more sour / most sour
elite / more elite / most elite

so how well does most pair with nouns? not great. taking our chance example from above, applying most gives equally bad translations:

*that was a chancest for Juve
*that was a most chance for Juve
*that was the most chance for Juve
that was the most chance that they'll get today

the fourth and final example, with a restrictive relative clause introduced by that and modifying most chance works. its semantics are slightly different. it turns chance into a mass noun, which allows most to exert a quantificational force over it. consider the semantics of the following:

the best chance they'll get all day
the most chance they'll get all day

they are very similar, but i would say not identical. the syntax certainly teases apart when using a concrete count noun that cannot have a mass noun interpretation.

the best book i read all summer
*the most book i read all summer

[i might be able to utter the second of these sentences, given the right context and a bit of sarcasm thrown in. for example: "so you had to read War and Peace for your summer reading assignment?" "yeah, that was the most book i read all summer!" in this case, though, the most book means the longest book, not the highest quality book.]

i think i've run out of comments and written myself into a corner to boot. this is a pretty long post. but i don't think that can make it a most post or certainly not a postest. not in English at least.

25 May 2007

clicks are hard to do

i caught a bit of Fresh Air on NPR as i was running an errand this afternoon. they were replaying an interview from about a year ago, featuring Nicholas Wade, a science reporter from the New York Times. the segment is entitled "DNA Analysis Illuminates the History of Man" and one part of it is dedicated to the spread of language in and outside of Africa as early human populations moved around that part of the world and genetically diverged from one another. Mr. Wade is obviously not a linguist, but said nothing really objectionable until this, regarding why there are a small set of languages that exhibit click sounds:

clicks are quite hard to do...it's very hard to do a double click, which several of these languages have. so it looks like once you have clicks you can lose them, but it's very hard to see anyone inventing a click from scratch. so if that's the case clicks have only been lost and not gained, and they must be of great antiquity.
now i remember my introductory phonology class and i remember saying "these sounds are hard to do" during our unit on non-English sounds. but to say objectively that sounds are hard to do is ridiculous. sounds are either possible or impossible (and some are impossible, just because the vocal tract doesn't create the shape that would cause such a sound). non-native sounds can be difficult for people to do. for example, i cannot, no matter how hard i try, produce a trill r, but if i had grown up in Italy, where the trill r is part of the native language, i would be able to produce them perfectly. Wade's assertion that clicks wouldn't be invented because they are hard to do is preposterous. furthermore, they must have been started by somebody, and there doesn't seem to be any compelling reason why these earlier humans would be more likely to "invent" the click than modern humans, who wouldn't do such a silly thing. it's true, native speakers of English aren't going to be going around trying out clicks and inserting them into their speech and saying "hey this is the Cool New Thing in phonemes, so everyone should adopt it." i suppose the bottom line of the story, which was that the peoples who do speak click languages have highly similar genetics, is valid and useful to both anthropologists and linguists. it also has scientific basis for uniting and distinguishing these peoples, but i guarantee that they don't pride themselves on the difficulty of their language.

11 May 2007

more lolguistics

i don't know whether i should promise that this will be my last post on lolcats, because there has been a flurry of new content about it recently. a surprisingly large group of people have taken interest in actual linguistic analysis of the lolcat idiom. the latest comes from David McRaney at Zero Sum Mind. the fact that his article concludes with this chart indicates the seriousness of his study of lolcats and related memes:

The great thing about all of this is how we can see new languages forming out of a new medium, and since the pace is abnormally fast, we can watch it evolve over weeks instead of decades.
these are, of course, constructed dialects, not actually languages. terminology aside, this is a fascinating opportunity who are interested in dialect and language change.
It also demonstrates how the Internet changes the way we connect and communicate. These words and macros depend on the users manipulating not only the information being passed back and forth, but the format of the codes we agree on to represent the information. Strunk and White would probably be appalled...
the linguists hope for nothing less.

10 May 2007

literecy cat ≠ linguist cat

the lolcats phenomenon is ridiculous, if not a bit amusing. (i think the real reason i enjoy it is because it pokes fun at those people who take photos of their cats and post them to flickr ad nauseam.) recently the phraseology of lolcats has been noticed by linguists, and it's been asked whether there is an actual rule-based lolcat dialect, and therefore, sentences which are ungrammatical in lolcat. i think this is true, even if the rules were historically derived from snowclones. there are morphological changes, such as simplification of the paradigm of have (has is used in for all persons and numbers). there are syntactic changes, including modifications to the ways that modals combine with predicates (i can has X, i is be Y, etc.). so i was all ready to conclude that yes, cats can has grammar, when this appears on I CAN HAS CHEEZBURGER, the canonical lolcats site:

dammit! here i am, ready to call lolcat a real, if contrived, dialect of English, and this guy has to go fly in the face of it. things that are wrong with it:

it doesn't know what grammar is. the sentence "Literacy Cat is amazed at your perfect grammar" is itself a perfectly grammatical sentence of standard English. deliberate misspellings have been conflated with ungrammaticality.
it enforces the concept of a standard. even though it doesn't say so explicitly, it implies that lolcat is "not perfect" and therefore stigmatizes it. (please though, don't take this as an endorsement that should there be people out there actually speaking lolcat that we shouldn't stigmatize them. there are no native speakers of this dialect, and deliberately invented dialects shouldn't have equal status as native dialects. it's just the principle of the matter.)
literacy is not language. everyone in the world, with a handful of exceptions, can and does speak a language. most of the world cannot read or write. i guess literacy cat really isn't qualified to be making linguistic generalizations. it's just that no one else realized that. and that is be my problem with stuff like this.

ohi:yoˀ update

an update to my previous post. on my return drive from Ithaca i saw more signs with IPA-looking stuff. besides the signs at river crossings, there were ones notifying me that i was entering the Allegany Indian Reservation of the Seneca Nation. turns out that the signs below are actually just printed in the Seneca language. Seneca has a fairly small set of phonemes, all of which are present in English except for contrastive long vowels and nasal vowels.

apparently since Seneca had no native orthography (that is my conjecture, i don't know that for certain), a slightly modified IPA became its de facto writing system. i'll leave commenting on that process to the socio-historical linguists.

07 May 2007

welcome to New York, linguist

i am currently in Ithaca, New York, my soon-to-be home for the next five years. i'm here doing apartment hunting for when i move here in the fall to start my grad work in linguistics at Cornell. as i was driving in along interstate 86 this afternoon, shortly after entering New York there are two spots where the road crosses the Allegheny River. at both of them, there are signs that read:

Allegheny River

i did a double take as i passed the first one. did that say what i thought it said? a (fairly narrow, all things considered) IPA transcription of the native pronunciation of Ohio, the original name of this river? if there hadn't been a second, identical sign a few miles down the road, i might not have fully believed it.

while this is cool, i honestly have no idea what the NYDOT thinks they're accomplishing with these signs. it's safe to say that the percentage of the population that knows IPA is effectively zero. even though the basic pronunciation can be surmised by someone who doesn't know IPA, because the symbols are fairly common, they will certainly wonder at the little dots and squiggles around some of the vowels. i suppose piquing the driving masses' interest in linguistics with such signs could be useful if there were any explanation for them whatsoever, but they are completely devoid of context unless you have the pre-existing knowledge necessary to make the couple of logical steps to relate them to the sign announcing the passage over the Allegheny.

i don't know who lobbied to get those signs put up, and they still seem rather silly. but maybe it's just a sign that New York is a good place to be a linguist.

05 May 2007


i have piles and piles of books in my bedroom at home, so earlier this week i was going through and cataloging them with Delicious Library. as i was going through one pile i was a bit surprised when this title jumped out at me:

it was given to me as a high school graduation present by someone misguided enough to pay it any heed. just to comfort myself, i made a few changes to the item details. i think it's more accurate this way.

anyone who has advice as to the best way to dispose of this monstrosity, feel free to leave a comment

02 May 2007

the blog returneth

i noted as a caveat in my inaugural post that there is no fixed schedule for posts here, although i do acknowledge that this latest hiatus was longer than what i planned. i think i easily spent two weeks' worth of linguistic writing by cranking out my 20-page syntax final paper, "Structure and Syntax of English Imperatives", in the final 48 hours before it was due. it turns out imperatives are pretty strange syntactically. i may post an excerpt here about the existence of pro in English and maybe expand on it.

i might have returned to blogging a bit sooner except just following the linguistics paper came graduation festivities and move-out hassle. now i should have some decent free time to write, and i do have ideas for posts at the ready. first up should be one that i started a couple weeks ago, on the latest addition to the class of conjunctions in English, slash. then some markedness and avoidance stuff, little pro (as mentioned above), and—every linguist's favorite—bashing Evil Prescriptivist Treatises.